R.E.M.’s direct link to pop music’s past was their initial producer, Mitch Easter, a native Southerner who built his studio, Drive-In, at his parents’ home in Winstom-Salem, North Carolina. Easter produced great pop recordings by Chris Stamey and Oh-OK, and invented his own quirky pop group, Let’s Active, whose Afoot is loaded with a confusion of playful hooks and surprises.
On R.E.M.’s records, Easter steered away from the expeted, relying on offhand noises and seemingly off-the-wall disruptions to shape a unique sound: busy productions aflutter with the activity of a pop event. This style of production is the Beatles’ legacy, but it also owes a great deal to the music of another Southern eccentric rooted in ’60s pop, Alex Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star.
Familiar with Chilton’s work, R.E.M. became the most successful practitioners of a Southern Anglo-pop style that has endured for over 40 years. Of gone-but-not-forgotten bands in this mold, some like the dB’s survive mostly in critical circles while others like the Scruffs fade into obscurity (except on EBay).
Labeled everything from hippie revivalists to new-wave progressives, R.E.M. has traditionally been regarded by leftist music critics with suspicion, especially having once called the Clash’s music “a newspaper.” In fact, R.E.M.’s sound could even be labeled as revisionist; their lyrics, pretentious.
But whatever R.E.M.’s songs are about, they remain important because they have renewed interest in the region that invented American music. Bluegrass and blues may seem incongruous with ’60s pop, but Southern boys listened to the Beatles, too!
As puzzling as it may seem on the surface, R.E.M.’s music is rooted in one place–Athens, Georgia, a comfortable haven removed from the hubbub of Atlanta. On R.E.M.’s “Time After Time (Annelise),” there is an allusion to climbing a water tower, and as any Southerner knows, the water tower serves as a marker in the small towns that dot the South. Since the town’s name is painted on the water tower’s face, it also provides the community with a sense of place. In Southern rural communities, young folks on a dare or just for kicks climb these towers, not to deface the town’s name but to paint their own personal riddles on the face of the tower–a message to be viewed by the entire community.
Climbing the water tower is the true motivation behind R.E.M.’s music.
The South, finally, can sing only of the South. As an established Southern pop band, R.E.M. reminds us of that heritage because it’s what they know best: the conflict between a dead South, ravaged by the Civil War, and a living region, breathing its last before it is effaced by the homogeneity and cultural proverty of America. Fully aware that the South is where America’s popular music truly began, R.E.M. have kept that legacy intact by introducing a myriad of old voices to a youthful audience.
It is no wonder then that when R.E.M., incognito, opened for the Cramps at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City on Halloween in 1983, the Athens band was billed under the only alias available to them: It Crawled from the South.
Find lots of Southern culture memorabilia at the great repository of memories: POPKRAZY.